BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — The nature of farming is difficult — farmers do not just have to deal with unpredictable weather patterns, but also how best to market their produce.

There are numerous farming technologies available in the market to ease farming weather woes, the most commonly favoured  being soilless methods of agriculture such as fertigation and hydroponics: an innovation aimed at enticing youths to dip their toes in agriculture.

The technology does not come cheap, as Fahim Ibrahim, Chief Scientific Officer of Agrome IQ International Sdn Bhd puts it, agriculture has a “high capital and high education intensive” requirement.

For example, Agrome recently launched its Hydroponic Starter Kit with built in LED light, allowing individuals to grow vegetables indoors, but one unit costs $1,800.

Who will buy my produce?

When done properly, farming via hydroponic can grow a significant amount of produce, enough for personal consumption as well as for sale.

And while there are many solutions available to make farming easier, it isn’t just about producing crops.

However, when it comes to the discourse of the agricultural scene in Brunei, for those who have the means, it brings up one important question — who do I sell my produce to?

“Market access [for farmers] is a real problem in Brunei, there’s no doubt Bruneian farmers have the capability to produce a lot, but with a large output, where are they going to sell them?” said Fahim.

A view of some of the grow beds at S&R Aquafarm, an aquaponics farm run by Syazwan Hj Suni. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Last year, more than 55 percent of Brunei’s crop output comprised vegetables, equivalent to $34.6 million in retail value, but local growers are experiencing saturated market.

For Syazwan Hj Suni, an aquaponics farmer based in Tutong, going niche is the way to sell.

Finding your niche

“I like to target very niche markets, and before I go about trying sell new types of produce, I will experiment and learn how to grow them before finding customers to sell them to,” said the co-founder of S&R Aquafarm.

Though not a full-time farmer, Syazwan has been growing and supplying restaurants across the country with novel produce, including two different kinds of mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), habaneros and microgreens.

To date the 30-year-old has grown 15 types of produce on his aquaponics farm, growing five to six types at a time depending on the market he has targeted for that particular season.

Running the farm with his family for about seven years, Syazwan has seen the rising trend of soilless or above soil agriculture, observing how more people are running their own hydroponics systems at home nowadays.

Aquaponics is a similar method of farming as hydroponics. Even though both are soilless methods, aquaponics however, has an aquaculture element to it as fish are reared at the same time and their excretions are used to provide nutrients to the plants.

He explained that with small-scale farms now becoming trending in Brunei, the market for agricultural produce has become over saturated, with hydroponic and fertigation farmers preferring to grow and sell lettuce and chillies respectively.

Syazwan also grows bitter gourd through aquaponics. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Having shelled out more than $10,000 due to expand his aquaponics system over the years, Syazwan acknowledged that farming with agrotechnology may not be the most cost effective way to earn extra income.

However, he believes inexpensive methods such as soilless or above-soil farming are more suitable for people wanting to dabble in farming.

“The revenue I earn every month is enough to cover the farm’s operating costs, and as a side income, its enough for me to lessen the burden of my monthly expenses.

“I hope to become a full-time farmer one day, [but] as of now… I have no time to target the mass market. Niche markets are more profitable because you won’t be competing with a lot of people.”

Training young farmers to be market-savvy

Senior officer from the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA), Hirman Hj Abu, said that with the sultanate being a small country, market access can be a barrier for new farmers.

Recently, the DAA started an initiative to encourage more youth to become farmers, inviting them to participate in agricultural courses that teach them to build their own vertical gardens at home.

Like hydroponics, vertical gardening is most suited to growing leafy vegetables, a fact that Hirman acknowledged may saturate the market even more.

“This is why in our courses, participants are informed of the importance of market analysis because if they just enter an open market, they will struggle.”

A vertical garden built using inexpensive materials. Photo: Courtesy of Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism

However, he said that just because a product may already exist in the market what matters is how a farmer adds value to his produce.

“If you look at the world today, the modern household often comprises people that are too busy working to go shopping, and this is a big potential market that I have yet to see farmers capitalising on.

“There is a demand for an e-marketplace for fruits and vegetables, and this is where farmers can add value to their produce; having ready-cut vegetables and delivering them from house to house.”

Hirman stressed the importance for new farmers to “go niche” and to “build their brand”, adding that in a small market, new farmers need to employ smart marketing strategy that can “win the heart of customers”.